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Editorial of the Socialist issue 1080
Labour must resist 'Covid coalition' - Workers need their own voice and party
In the early stages of a war or national emergency, there is often a mood to pull together in the 'national' interest, and the idea that 'party politics' should be put to one side. An Opinium poll in the Observer showed trust in Boris Johnson has gone up. This is echoed in increased support for previously unpopular leaders elsewhere, such as Macron in France.
Leading Labour figures like John McDonnell have said this is not the time for "political point-scoring", and the leaders of the TUC have pledged to work with the government "in the national interest" (see 'Union independence must be maintained at socialistparty.org.uk).
Now senior Tories are floating the idea of a "Covid coalition" - some form of a national unity government.
However, despite this mood, there is no single national interest, but different class interests, which this coronavirus crisis is laying bare.
The instinct to stand in solidarity together is a strong one - not a 'British' value but a class one. The millions who clapped for the NHS are an illustration of that, along with the more than 700,000 people who came forward as volunteers.
Class solidarity is illustrated in the countless battles taking place in workplaces to try to win protective equipment, to fight against pay cuts and job losses, to close unnecessarily open workplaces. That stands in stark contrast to the instinct of the rich tax-avoiding bosses, demanding bailouts and refusing to pay wages.
The virus itself is not a respecter of class, but the experience of living through the crisis, and the chance of getting the necessary care, very much displays the class divide - 'staying at home' in a tiny over-crowded flat; struggling on 20% less pay or inadequate benefits. One week into the lockdown and already 1.5 million adults say they cannot get enough food. We have heard the lie "we are all in this together" before, and this crisis is exposing the inability of rotten capitalism to protect lives.
The greatest fear of the capitalists is how they get out the other side of this crisis. The economy is in an unprecedented nose-dive - described by economic commentator Nuriel Roubini as "the fastest, deepest economic shock in history". Class polarisation will only deepen.
The challenge for the representatives of the capitalist class, is how do they roll back the state interventions and make the working class pay.
A form of national unity government, as far as the Tories and big business are concerned, would be a shield, to share the blame for the punishment they aim to mete out on the working class.
They would hope bringing Labour leaders into the tent would provide a cover that would make anti-working class policies more palatable.
It is an illustration of how the boss class views Keir Starmer as a safe pair of hands for capitalist interests, that the Tory MP raising this idea, George Freeman, said: "When Labour have a sensible new leader, Keir Starmer [if elected] should be invited to a Covid cabinet, Cobra and joint No 10 briefings."
The sigh of relief that the unreliable Corbyn has gone is almost audible. In fact, none of the candidates for Labour leader opposed the idea of a unity government.
The current dominant mood of standing together can mean that, temporarily, class collaboration in some form of national government could be accepted.
But ten years of austerity and the reality exposed by this crisis will make it much harder to get away with forcing the working class to pay.
The tolerance for a Labour Party that has not stood up and expressed workers' anger, and that is prepared to work hand in hand with the Tories to defend the interests of the capitalists, could be short-lived.
A national unity government runs a great risk for the ruling class: that workers' anger wouldn't be contained by the Labour Party under its new leader, but could find expression in struggle and in efforts to forge a new working-class party, with a socialist programme. It is that risk that could stay their hand.
In The Socialist 1 April 2020:
World War Two
What we think
Food supply and the coronavirus crisis